AS HAITI votes today in its first elections since 1957, we should remember that the winner 30 years ago was Francois Duvalier -- who proceeded to name himself "president for life." Elections may do better this time, but Haiti's history -- not just the tyranny of Duvalier and his son -- warrants a considerable pessimism about the prospects of this poverty-wracked Caribbean country, by far the poorest in the hemisphere.

The Duvaliers were merely the latest in a virtually unbroken chain of autocratic and greedy chiefs of state that began with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who named himself "governor general for life" in 1804 after a successful uprising against the French freed 480,000 slaves. One measure of this legacy of avarice and irresponsibility is the fact that today three-quarters of Haiti's population is illiterate.

Ironically, Haiti was one of the richest colonies in the new world 200 years ago. In "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776, Adam Smith observed that Haiti "is now the most important of the sugar colonies of the West Indies, and its produce is said to be greater than that of all the English sugar colonies put together."

Those riches were produced in a brutal slavery system the aftereffects of which are still widespread today, 183 years after Haitian independence. Tyranny, corruption, exploitation and poverty have been nurtured in a society virtually devoid of humane institutions.

A part of the problem has been racism. Many Haitian mulattoes -- an elite population descended from 18th-century planters -- have looked down on Haitian blacks. I remember a conversation 10 years ago in which a mulatto asserted that blacks were not really all that different from animals.

Yet, throughout Haiti's history as an independent country, blacks have also held power -- and often have turned their backs on their fellow blacks. "Papa Doc" -- the first Duvalier -- himself was a founder of the "negritude" movement. Prior to gaining office, he was considered a humanitarian and intellectual.

But the principal cause of Haiti's acute underdevelopment is a set of national values and attitudes dominated by traditional African culture -- particularly the voodoo religion -- compounded by the experience of slavery. One Haitian mulatto with an American graduate degree told me that almost all Haitians believe in voodoo -- himself included. For most Haitians, Catholicism is a veneer.

Voodoo is a religion without ethical content. It explains worldly events as the consequence of the often-capricious actions of hundreds of spirits. It focuses on appeasing these animist forces. Ideas of personal responsibility, social responsibility and planning are thus alien to most Haitians. A few years ago, Dr. Wallace Hodges, an American Baptist missionary who had lived in a Haitian town for more than 20 years, told a Baltimore Sun reporter, "If a Haitian steals a jug of milk from my hospital, he has no shame because he believes he was given the opportunity by the spirits."

The same attitude probably held true, on a grander scale, for the Duvaliers and many of their predecessors.

Slavery contributed to this moral void by inculcating values and attitudes that work against human progress. Both master and slave learned that work is a curse. Slavery undermined human dignity, achievement, egalitarianism and the sense of community. It bred mistrust, avoidance of responsibility, dishonesty and fear. And it taught the use of force in human relationships. That the slavery experience still lives in the Haitian psyche is suggested by the extreme physical punishment of children used to this day to teach submission.

The human consequences of voodoo and slavery are captured in this observation by Hodges: "People believe that the real reason Haitians want to leave is that they are afraid of the government. That is superficial. They are afraid of one another. You will find a high degree of paranoia in Haiti."

Even more poignant is the observation of Placide David, a Haitian writing in exile in 1959: "Our souls are like dead leaves. We live in indifference, are silently malcontent. . .the most flagrant violation of our rights and the most outrageous abuse of authority provokes among us merely submission."

The culture of voodoo and slavery persists principally because of Haiti's historic isolation from the rest of the world. The isolation was in part a reflection of international anti-black prejudice. (For example, the United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, largely because of southern fears that American slaves would be infected by Haiti's example.) But it was also in part self-imposed: Haitian policy was dominated for several decades after independence by fear of the return of the French.

Haiti's history -- and particularly its isolation -- stand in stark contrast to that of the Caribbean country of Barbados.

The roots of the Barbadian people are in the Dahomey region of West Africa whence came the majority of Haitians. The Barbadians, too, were brought to the new world into a cruel slavery system, in this case by the English, at the same time as the Haitians. The roots of democratic self-government for whites on this small island go back to 1652. In 1710, a rich planter left a substantial bequest for educating and Christianizing the slaves. Acts of noblesse oblige and movement toward racial equality and integration continued through abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and emancipation in 1833. By the time Barbados achieved independence in 1966, it was a progressive, democratic, prosperous country of, in effect, black Englishmen.

Haiti's first real exposure to the outside world occurred with the U.S. Marine occupation, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. However one may feel about the occupation as an act of intervention, it provided Haiti far more responsible and effective government, in terms of basic human needs and justice, than the country had ever known. Although the intervention increasingly became a rallying point for Haitian nationalism, and although many reforms fell into disuse after the departure of the Marines, the world has looked different to the Haitians since.

The role of the United States in recent decades has been constructive. The Kennedy administration cut off aid in 1963 as a protest against the abuses of Papa Doc. The Nixon administration reactivated aid in 1972 on essentially humanitarian grounds in response to the softer policies of Baby Doc. The Carter administration leaned on Baby Doc to accelerate reform. And the Reagan administration has purposefully and effectively promoted democratization.

Perhaps most important to Haiti's future in the long run are two spontaneous developments that are changing the way Haitians see the world: the migration of hundreds of thousands of Haitians to the United States and Canada; and the establishment of assembly industries employing tens of thousands in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. To the extent that the former return to Haiti, usually on visits but sometimes permanently, they become agents of cultural change. The assembly-plant workers learn that a combination of organization, cooperation, technology and work can vault them into the middle class -- something the voodoo houngans (priests) have failed to achieve.

But culture usually changes very slowly, and it may be decades before Haitian values and attitudes are sufficiently modernized and institutionalized to make democratic stability and sustained economic dynamism feasible. In the meantime, and particularly in light of recent history, people who know Haiti and wish it well can only keep their fingers crossed.

Lawrence Harrison, author of "Underdevelopment is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case," was director of the USAID mission to Haiti from 1977 to 1979.